1986’s The Silent Tower is the first volume in Barbara Hambly’s Windrose trilogy.
Although his grandfather is the Archmage Salteris Solaris, Stonne Caris’ own magical gifts are quite limited. Thus the young man has embraced the Way of the Sasenna. Better to be a superlative warrior than a third-rate magician.
Of late his meagre magical powers have disappeared, much to the swordsman’s alarm. He would investigate this but … other problems intervene.
Caris witnesses a violent murder, one that seems to have been committed by someone using magic. The murderer shot and killed mage Thirle and then fled into a sudden stygian darkness that bore him away mid-step.
Caris’ grandfather, the Archmage, believes that he knows what sort of magic this is. Forbidden magic, known only to two of land’s mages: Dark Mage Suraklin and his acolyte Antryg Windrose.
The Archmage suspects Antryg. As Thirle was dying he uttered Antryg’s name. However Antryg has an excellent alibi: he has been imprisoned in the magic-damping Silent Tower for the last seven years. But Suraklin can’t have done it either; he’s been dead for years.
The Archmage sends Caris to the Silent Tower, where he finds an Antryg who seems to have descended into madness. And yet … soon after Caris’ visit, the Archmage vanishes.
The scene shifts to Southern California and programmer Joanna Sheraton. Her main concerns are her demanding job and a soon-to-be ex, a man whose abuse can no longer be ignored. Dealing with world-walking wizards is not on her to-do list, and neither is getting dragged off across other-worldly dimensions to a rapidly industrializing magic-using world.
Although highly constrained in his use of magic (he must avoid the notice of the Council of Mages), Antryg can indeed slip free of the Tower. However, he insists he did not murder Thirle, nor did he kidnap (or worse) the Archmage. However, if he is indeed innocent, then there must be an active mage with powers and knowledge comparable to those possessed by Antryg and the Dark Mage.
Solving the mystery may be impossible. Mages are a despised relic of the pre-industrial era. Prince Regent Pharos despises mages, as does the Church; the current crisis provides a pretext to round up the sorcerers in the name of public safety. High on the Prince Regent’s to-capture list: Antryg and anyone foolish enough to be captured near him.
This book ends on an enormous cliff-hanger.
There’s a tendency for SFF authors to see advanced technology and magic as incompatible. Magic and dirigibles, sure; magic and computers? Done, but not as often. In this novel a cunning villain mixes magic and computer tech.
This is, I am sad to say, a book more interesting for the issues it raises than it is as a book to read. There are some serious pacing issues, particularly a section where the characters seem to be trapped in a “12:01 P.M.”-esque time loop involving confrontations and narrow escapes. The novel slows to a glacial pace in the middle sections and only picks up just before the end.
On the other hand, the book has more depth than one might expect — see the plot involving Joanna’s gaslighting ex-to-be — and it did manage to surprise me from time to time. The Prince Regent, for example, who seems a stock depraved homosexual of the sort seen in fiction of the long, long ago, turns out to have extremely good reasons for his behavior.
The Silent Tower is clearly constrained by the need to please the editors at Del Rey, who had firm views concerning genre fiction1. Still, the moments where the book rises about the Del Rey straitjacket are promising. Let’s hope Volume Two, The Silicon Mage, is better.
1: See, for example, Judy-Lynn del Rey’s largely forgettable Stellar series. I doubt Lester del Rey’s Best SF anthologies have aged any better, although I suppose I should double-check that. I do have them handy.…